Monday, February 18, 2019

Sermon: "No Such Thing as a Popular Prophet", Jeremiah 17:5-10/Luke 6:17-26 (February 17, 2019)


As human beings, we’re always learning. The “classroom” might be in a formal school setting, at home, or somewhere else, but no matter where we are, we’re constantly taking in new information. Sometimes, the lessons come naturally and are easy and fun, like learning how to play a new game. Other times, they’re boring and uneventful, but still necessary, like figuring out how to file taxes (or how to convince someone else to do them for you). Either way, we usually manage to absorb these lessons without too much existential fuss; learning them doesn’t significantly alter our perspective on life. But what happens when we’re confronted with a lesson that threatens to turn our understanding of the world upside down?

I had an experience like this back in Seminary. I considered myself open-minded and willing to learn for the sake of God’s kingdom, but I struggled mightily when my professors began to challenge my ideas about racism and “colorblindness”. If you’re not familiar with the term, “colorblindness” refers to the idea that we should completely ignore race in our interactions with each other. At the time, I assumed that this was the best way for society to function. It seemed logical that “not seeing race” was an admirable goal. I became increasingly frustrated with my professors for insisting that colorblindness was a tool of systematic racism. I vented with like-minded students after class and complained about the way certain assignments were presented.

But gradually, I became more aware of the stories that my classmates of color were telling. Stories of colorblind policies not really being so colorblind after all. Stories of blatant discrimination being minimized because “we don’t want to make it about race”. Stories of their racial identities being downplayed, ignored, or even rejected because someone else decided that it was irrelevant. And slowly, S-L-O-W-L-Y, I began to understand that racism is a far more complex issue than I had realized, and that my perspective was woefully limited. I discovered that my classmates and professors had been speaking prophetically, but because the message challenged my perceptions so profoundly, it took me a long time to react with anything other than anger and indignation. It’s not something that I’m proud of, but it was a critical part of my education, and something that’s still shaping my perspective today.

If we want to be prophetic, we need to be prepared for our foundational beliefs to be challenged. As always, the disciples are an excellent example of how difficult this can really be. In our Gospel reading this morning, we find them with Jesus, their Rabbi—their teacher—who they had committed not only to learn from, but to follow (both figuratively and literally) mere verses before. Along with the rest of the class, they obediently gather on the plain and wait to find out what new lesson he has in store for them. It’s obviously going to be a good one; this is a man who’s healed lepers and paralytics, who’s caught more fish in one haul than any of them ever had, and who somehow has the confidence to teach tax collectors and pharisees alike. They’re certain they’ll like what he has to say.

Then, just as the rabbi opens his mouth to begin teaching, he looks straight at his disciples. An enormous crowd of people from all over Judea and Jerusalem, Tyre and Sidon, and he focuses on THEM. It’s like he’s calling them out, talking directly to them with the rest of the world listening in. Keep in mind, these are the people who had JUST been specially chosen out of all of Jesus’ followers—the “teacher’s pets”, if you will. They were the “in” crowd. These were the twelve who were ultimately going to be charged with the responsibility of spreading Jesus’ teachings throughout the world. And what does he tell them? “Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man…Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”[1]

Um…I can tell you from personal experience that that’s not the sort of thing a teacher’s pet likes to hear. One doesn’t get to the top of the class because one wishes to be reviled and excluded. You do it for the accolades and approval. You do it to impress people. This must’ve been an intensely uncomfortable thing for the disciples to hear. Luke doesn’t tell us anything about their reactions, but I can picture them looking at one another uneasily, thinking, “This can’t be right…” We know that later in Luke, the disciples argue about who’s the greatest among them,[2] so obviously they’re overly concerned with their status no matter what Jesus teaches. This lesson’s not going to be easy for them to swallow.

But that’s the thing about the Gospel’s message. It’s not easy, nor is it always pleasant. It’s ALWAYS good news, but it doesn’t always feel like it right away. Jesus reminds the disciples that the message they’re charged with bringing to the world—the subversive message of God’s kingdom belonging to the oppressed and the privileged being emptied[3]—will not be a popular one. It’ll be hard for people to hear, because it’ll challenge their assumptions and understandings of the world around them. The Good News won’t sound good to everyone, and so, as the bearers of seemingly-bad news, the disciples should expect to be hated and reviled.

This is a deeply unsettling message for us to hear, too, as modern-day disciples. We all want to be liked, right? Aside from the fact that being popular just feels good, there are real, logistical reasons that the Church sometimes seems almost pathologically obsessed with people liking us. First of all, Christians are supposed to be kind, loving people, right? So we figure if others like us, we must be doing a good job living up to our reputation. Also, the more people that like us, the more will join our community and contribute their resources (time, talent, and treasure) so that we can keep on surviving and thriving.

But before we go too far down the path of likability, we need to ask ourselves why we do what we do—why we exist as “the Church” and not just a Jesus-based social club. We don’t exist so that we have an excuse to see our friends every week; that’s just a delightful side effect. We don’t even necessarily exist so that we can learn how much God loves us—if that were the case, we could do that well enough in private Bible study. We certainly don’t exist so that we can spend all of our time and energy making sure we continue to exist in the future. We exist—the Church exists—so that we can share the Good News of Jesus Christ with the entire world[4] and so that together we can bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.[5] THIS is at the core of who we are and why we gather as we do: we’re equipping ourselves and encouraging one another in this work.

If, however, this purpose becomes obscured by our desire to be liked, then we risk sacrificing the message—the very Word of God—on the altar of popularity. Jesus lays it out clearly for his disciples: his teachings are neither gentle nor tame, and they’re not ideas that people will accept easily. We should not only be prepared for rejection; we should expect it! If EVERYONE likes what you’re saying…that’s a good indication that you’re probably doing something wrong. To be truly prophetic is to be hated, insulted, and reviled. But y’all, it’s okay—it’s more than okay—because we’re not here to get the most butts in seats or to have the biggest social club (as good as that might make us feel). We’re here to transform lives through the sharing of God’s complex, challenging, and wonderful Word—and Jesus assures us that there’s no such thing as a popular prophet. So if we’re rejected for preaching the Word that’s been given to us, we should rejoice in knowing that we’re onto something good.

Of course, it’s understandable that we might want to downplay this reality and lean instead on other scripture that seems to contradict this message. This passage from Jeremiah says, “Blessed are those who trust in the Lord…they shall be like a tree planted by water…it shall not fear when heat comes…” Don’t worry, it seems to say, if you trust God, you’ll be taken care of, and all will be well. This idea is the basis of the modern Prosperity Gospel movement, which basically says if you just have enough faith, everything will be sunshine and rainbows, your coffers will overflow, and you’ll be given everything you could possibly want. Scripture does reveal a truth in Jeremiah, but not the truth that the Prosperity Gospel wants us to buy into. Surely, faith WILL lead us to success, as scripture promises. But, as Jesus makes clear, our human definition of success doesn’t always match up with God’s.

While we might picture health and success meaning an overflowing sanctuary and a million-dollar budget, God dreams of God’s children caring for one another, reassuring all who walk through the door that the kingdom of God belongs to the vulnerable and downtrodden, and preaching the gospel faithfully even in the face of uncertainty. THIS is what success looks like to God. A church that lives in this way is a church that’s truly fulfilling its calling—whether it survives for centuries or just for a few years. It can be scary when the future is uncertain and the task of sharing the authentic gospel seems self-destructive, but remember that we’re a resurrection people…even death doesn’t mean failure.

Friends, the Gospel is good, but it’s also HARD. It challenges us, it pushes us, it rips us open and puts us back together again. And we’re supposed to convince other people that this is a good idea? Psh. I don’t care what you do for a living; this Christianity thing is the toughest job that you’ve ever had. It means being utterly and completely changed from the inside out, and then convincing other people to do the same. We WILL be rejected. We WILL be insulted and excluded. But this isn’t unfair or outrageous; it’s part of the gig.

If we’re truly faithful to the Gospel, there’ll be plenty of people who hate what we have to say. So we have to come to terms with the fact that others may never truly accept our vision of the exorbitant, unconditional love that God offers to every single person. We have to make peace with the fact that we may never belong to a 2,000-member congregation. But that’s okay. Prophets aren’t supposed to be popular. They’re supposed to be prophetic. So let’s not lean on the affirmations and accolades of mere mortals, but on the truth and strength of our God. Let Christ’s message speak for itself through your voice, without sugar-coating it or making it more palatable. Whatever may come, we must be unashamed and uncompromising. God has tested our minds and searched our hearts and has chosen to entrust us with this lesson. May we be unafraid to learn it and share it and live it. Even if we’re never a success by the world’s standards, may we be a magnificent and prophetic one in God’s eyes. Amen.


[1] Luke 6:22, 26.
[2] Luke 22:24-30.
[3] Luke 1:53 (Mary’s Magnificat) as well as Luke 6:24-25.
[4] Matthew 28:19.
[5] Matthew 6:10.

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